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The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

DIRECTOR: Marc Webb

CAST:

Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field

REVIEW:

The road to this reboot was a twisty-turny one.  Originally, despite the general opinion of Spider-Man 3 as a disappointment, Sony intended to forge onward with a fourth installment with director Sam Raimi and star Tobey Maguire still attached.  But due to reasons including Raimi’s clashes with the studio during the making of Spider-Man 3 (he did not want to include the villain Venom in the film, who was essentially forced on him by producer Avi Arad), Maguire’s hefty salary requests, and possibly other behind-the-scenes issues we’ll never know about, Sony eventually completely dropped Raimi, Maguire, and company and decided to start fresh with another Spider-Man movie that, like Batman Begins, had nothing to do with those that came before.  Many, including myself, were highly skeptical of the news of a reboot again showing us Spidey’s origin story, considering we’d seen it in theaters a mere decade ago, and I still haven’t 100% made up my mind whether the reboot has justified its existence, but viewed on its own, it’s an entertaining (if not quite “amazing”) addition to the masked webslinger’s onscreen adventues.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has never forgotten the night when his mysterious scientist parents disappeared, leaving him in the care of his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), and now, as an intelligent but socially awkward high school senior, he sets out to find the truth.  Armed only with a photograph and a name, he sneaks into the powerful Oscorp corporation and befriends Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), an old colleague of his father’s who is determined to perfect interspecies genetic splicing to cure injuries and diseases.  This is also where Peter is bitten by a genetically engineered spider, and quickly begins to find that all of his senses are wildly heightened, he can climb walls, shoot webbing from his hands, and effortlessly overpower multiple adversaries.  Initially, he uses his newfound skills to humiliate the school bully and hit on classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), Dr. Connors’ chief intern and the daughter of hard-nosed police chief Captain Stacy (Denis Leary), but a key tragedy drives Peter to turn to vigilantism, and when his powers save the life of a young boy, to true heroism.  Meanwhile, as will surprise no one who’s seen the other Spider-Man movies, Dr. Connors’ experments go very, very wrong, and the scientist transforms himself into a monstrous alter ego…The Lizard.

So, is everything old new again?  Well, some of it is and some of it isn’t.  Anyone who knows anything about Spider-Man knows Martin Sheen’s Uncle Ben is living on borrowed time (in fairness to the filmmakers, Uncle Ben’s death at the hands of a mugger is canon from the comics, not “stolen” from the previous movies), and there are various other scenes that feel like slightly tweaked versions of one we saw in 2002’s Spider-Man , especially when Peter uses his powers to pwn bully Flash Thompson (albeit in a different way) and his letting a thief go out of petty anger comes back to haunt him when the escaped thief causes the death of Uncle Ben (although, again, the situation is reworked).  On the other hand, the filmmakers go with different supporting characters (aside from the inevitable Uncle Ben and Aunt May, who are as indispensable to Spider-Man as Alfred and Gordon are to Batman).  The reboot is actually more accurate to the comics than its predecessors in a couple of ways, including the details of Peter’s parents being S.H.I.E.L.D.-affiliated scientists (the Raimi films made no mention of his parents), and Gwen Stacy, not Mary Jane Watson, being Peter’s first love (the Raimi films had Peter pining for MJ since childhood).  There is no J. Jonah Jameson (although the Daily Bugle is mentioned), and no Harry Osborn (although the presence of Oscorp and mentions of the unseen Norman Osborn could indicate the plot direction of the sequel).  Tonally, The Amazing Spider-Man is a little more gritty and serious and lighter on comedy than Raimi’s trilogy (perhaps borrowing a page from Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, the success of which seems to have sparked a trend of comic book movies with more serious tones).  Especially after the over-the-top silliness on display in Spider-Man 3, many will welcome the more serious tone with open arms, but a side effect is that the movie arguably plays it almost a little too straightforward and serious and isn’t as much fun.  It’s entertaining, but no scene, not even the action sequences, reaches the exuberant joyride of some scenes in Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2.  There’s a few Spider-Man v. Lizard skirmishes (the best takes place in Peter’s school about halfway through), and there’s some nicely-filmed first person perspective shots of Peter climbing buildings and swinging through the city, but there is no scene near the scale or excitement level of Spider-Man’s fight with Doc Ock on the runaway train in Spider-Man 2, and like the movie itself, the action is vaguely underwhelming.

Andrew Garfield (a British relative newcomer, affecting a perfect American accent) plays a Peter Parker who still likes photography and science and is still haplessly socially awkward, but is more of an edgy anti-social skateboarding hipster than Tobey Maguire’s nerd.  There’s moments when Garfield’s twitchy, frazzled, stammering mannerisms are a little annoying, and others where his newfound cockiness as Spidey threatens to make him come across a little abrasive, but while his version is in a markedly different vein from Maguire’s, they share a quirky likability.  He is well-matched by Emma Stone, who plays Gwen with a grounded, low-key seriousness (if we’re being honest, Stone’s acting is stronger than her predecessor Kirsten Dunst’s), and despite initially seeming a little mismatched, she and Garfield generate a sexual heat in their onscreen liplocks (perhaps unsurprising, considering the two also became an offscreen item during filming).  I’m not ready to forget about Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst yet, but SPOILER WARNING if this new series dares to follow the comics faithfully enough to include Gwen Stacy’s accidental death at Spider-Man’s hands, it could take the reboot in substantially darker and more tragic directions than Raimi ever dared to go.  The supporting cast is solid, with Rhys Ifans and Denis Leary, both primarily known for comedic roles, credibly playing it straight as a “sympathetic villain” and the hard-ass police chief, respectively.  As the latest renditions of Uncle Ben and Aunt May, Martin Sheen makes more of an impression than Cliff Robertson but while Sally Field is fine, it’s hard to beat the perfectly-cast Rosemary Harris.  Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz have “hi and bye” walk-on roles in the opening as Peter’s parents, and there’s small roles for Irrfan Khan and C. Thomas Howell.

Marc Webb (now there’s a fitting name for the director of a Spider-Man movie) handles the action scenes and the quieter romance moments competently, though Raimi arguably showed more flair and energy, and along the way there are a couple inspired moments.  I especially liked Peter actually acting like an arachnid, crawling up the wall like a spider and weaving a web in the sewer and using vibrations on the web strands to alert him to The Lizard’s approach, like how a real spider senses ensnared prey.  I also liked the awkward dinner scene where Peter finds out his pursuer Captain Stacy is his girlfriend’s father, and they quickly get in an argument over whether Spider-Man is a hero or a dangerous vigilante.  The CGI Lizard is well-rendered, with his facial features obviously modeled after those of Rhys Ifans.  Other elements are less inspired.  The movie glosses over scenes 2002’s Spider-Man spent practically half its running time on developing Peter’s usage of his powers, perhaps to avoid seeming more like a rehash than necessary, but with the result that he seems to get used to being Spider-Man awfully quickly.  I was also irked that it omits Uncle Ben’s quote “with great power comes great responsibility” and works its way around it with an unnecessary rewording; this may also have been an attempt to avoid seeming like too much of a copycat of the previous origin film, but that quote existed in the comics decades before it was said onscreen by Cliff Robertson, and has been Spider-Man’s motto for his entire existence.  If the filmmakers were trying to avoid seeming repetitive or redundant, this was a case of them trying too hard.  The plot is chock-full of contrivances and coincidences; Peter just happens to stumble across an unknown photograph of his father pointing him toward Dr. Connors, who just happens to have his crush Gwen as his chief intern, who just happens to be the police chief’s daughter, and the little kid Peter saves on the bridge just happens to be the son of a crane operator who comes in handy in a pinch in the climax.  Even by comic book movie villain standards, The Lizard’s climactic master plan is silly–covering New York City in a cloud of toxin to transform its entire population into reptilian supermen–and the climax doesn’t take full advantage of its possibilities, showing cops transforming into lizard men and then doing nothing with them, when the ante could have been upped by having mutants rampaging through the streets while Spidey takes on Lizard Numero Uno atop Oscorp tower (also, while we can see this plot development coming a mile away, the movie takes enough time presenting Dr. Connors sympathetically in the early scenes that it feels a little abrupt when he goes into full-blown mad scientist mode).

At this point, my verdict ranks The Amazing Spider-Man as easily better than Spider-Man 3 but not as much fun as Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2.  There’s something mildly underwhelming about the whole affair, and while the tone is more serious and grounded than Raimi’s, the energy level seems flatter, but considering we got three movies’ worth of Raimi and Maguire’s Spider-Man, I’m willing to reserve final judgment until I see more of what Webb and Garfield can bring us.  In the meantime, The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t amazing, but it’s diverting entertainment and a respectable entry into Spider-Man’s onscreen adventures.

***

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